White House Pressroom Getting a Makeover
Download MP3 (Right-click or option-click the link.)
Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus. This week we report on the reporters who report on the president.
The correspondents take their seats in the James S. Brady Briefing Room. Other reporters and photographers crowd around. The White House press corps represents print and electronic media from around the world.
The time is half past one. The afternoon press briefing is about to begin.
The atmosphere is different from the briefings in the morning. The morning briefing is called a gaggle. Gaggles are informal. They are a chance to discuss events that will take place that day in the government. They are also a chance to find out what reporters are interested in that day. Gaggles are usually not permitted to be broadcast. Afternoon briefings are – and today this one is special.
Behind press secretary Tony Snow on the speaker’s stage are five former press secretaries. They include the man for whom the briefing room is named.
James Brady was shot in the head and partially paralyzed in nineteen eighty-one. He was struck when a gunman, John Hinckley, wounded President Ronald Reagan outside a Washington hotel. Since then Mr. Brady and his wife have campaigned against gun violence. Sarah Brady was with her husband at the White House for the press briefing.
Two other special guests also stopped by: President Bush and his wife, Laura.
So what was the event? Tony Snow explained in his opening announcements:
TONY SNOW: "Welcome to the final briefing before we christen the next swimming pool here at the White House. Scared silence. No, no, no. The last iteration of the present version of this briefing room. The next time we have a briefing here, it will be spiffed-up and high-tech. But it's a wonderful thing and a wonderful day and I'm glad you are all here."
The pressroom is built over Franklin Roosevelt’s swimming pool. Members of the public raised the money to build the pool. They wanted to thank President Roosevelt for guiding the nation through the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed exercising in water, though polio robbed him of the use of his legs.
He was president from nineteen thirty-two until his death in nineteen forty-five.
Years later, Richard Nixon had the swimming pool covered over. President Nixon wanted to create a pressroom that could handle modern television equipment. Nixon left office in nineteen seventy-four, the only president ever to resign.
Over the years, the pressroom started to show its age. Coffee found its way onto the floor, onto the once fine carpets. The forty-two seats in the room often need repair. This past January, a television camera hanging near President Bush came loose as he spoke in the pressroom. The camera fell and hung by a strap.
The room will be modernized. Among other things, the blue curtain backdrop that millions of people have seen on television will be gone. A big video screen is expected to take its place behind the speaker's stand.
Reporters will work from a building across the street from the White House while the pressroom is closed. The work is expected to take about nine months.
The White House, at Sixteen-Hundred Pennsylvania Avenue, is where the president lives and works. The office of the vice president is next door, in the Old Executive Office Building.
The pressroom looks large on television, but reporters say it is not nearly large enough. Some days the room gets more crowded than usual. Hundreds of journalists cover stories at the White House from time to time.
Thirteen journalists, or even fewer, sometimes have to gather information for the other members of the press corps. This is known as pool duty. Reporters pool their information. Some events, and places like the president's Oval Office, do not have enough room to fit a big crowd of journalists.
Pool reporters are supposed to do the best they can to supply others, including their competitors, with information. Reporters share the responsibility of pool duty. A journalist who spent ten years in the White House press corps says pool duty often worried her more than any other part of her job.
Every press corps has someone who is considered its dean. Merriman Smith of United Press International had that honor at the White House for many years. Yet the story for which he is best known took place in Dallas, Texas. The date was November twenty-second, nineteen sixty-three.
Smitty, as he was known, was traveling in the motorcade when President John F. Kennedy was shot. The president had been riding in an open car.
Merriman Smith was seated next to the radio-telephone in the press car. He quickly reached for it and got through to the U.P.I. office in Dallas to report the news. He stayed on the phone, even as a reporter from the Associated Press hit him on the back again and again to give it up.
Smith had bruises on his back -- but U.P.I. beat its fiercest competitor on the story. Merriman Smith won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the assassination of President Kennedy.
Today the journalist long called the dean of the White House press corps is Helen Thomas. She has covered the White House for more than forty years. She celebrated her eighty-sixth birthday on August fourth.
For many years Helen Thomas was White House correspondent for United Press International. Now she writes commentaries for the Hearst newspapers. She also writes books. Her newest is called "Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public."
Helen Thomas often criticizes President Bush and the war in Iraq. Some people say she is not a true journalist but a liberal activist. Others say her position now as an opinion columnist gives her freedom to say what she thinks.
Free speech and a free press were two of the rights written into the First Amendment to the Constitution. These guarantees have led to many disagreements over the limits to press freedom.
In the United States, most news organizations are privately owned. There are public broadcasters, but only part of their financial support comes from the government.
Presidents and the press have a complex relationship. It can be tense, it can be friendly; it can be friendly and tense, all in the same breath. Some people think White House reporters are too aggressive. Others think they are not aggressive enough.
Working in the White House is seen as one of the top jobs in journalism. Yet the working spaces for the press are small and crowded. And reporters who have the job say that all too often it can involve simply covering events. These include photo opportunities. Photo ops are short events designed mostly for the cameras. They are a fact of life in politics.
Efforts by an administration to prevent news leaks and to control the flow of information can limit the ability to dig for stories. So can time pressures. Reporters today face greater demands to feed nonstop news operations and the Internet.
In nineteen fourteen, eleven members of the press corps formed the White House Correspondents’ Association. They had heard a rumor about press conferences to be given by President Woodrow Wilson. They had heard that other reporters would choose who would cover them.
But the story was not true. The White House reporters got to cover the president’s briefings.
For six years the White House Correspondents’ Association seemed to have no real purpose. Then the group started to hold dinners and invited presidents to attend.
The association has other responsibilities, like trying to get more chances to question the president. But to the public its best known activity is its yearly dinner. Presidents take part in the entertainment. The dinner is one of those Washington traditions that bring together people who make the news and those who report it.
Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. You can read transcripts of our shows and listen online to our archives at voaspecialenglish.com. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus. We hope you can join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.
Correction: Franklin Roosevelt was president from 1933 to 1945, not 1932 as stated. Also, an earlier version of this page incorrectly reported the date of the final briefing at the White House before the pressroom renovation. It took place Aug. 2.